Mississippi’s elected transportation commissioners have received a handful of resumes for executive director of the Mississippi Department of Transportation, including from Gov. Tate Reeves’ Chief of Staff Brad White, former chairman of the state Republican Party.
Other applicants include Jeff Altman, a longtime MDOT employee who’s serving as interim director of the agency, and Heath Hall, owner of a public relations firm who has served as a consultant to Madison County and its sheriff’s department. Hall was briefly deputy administrator for the Federal Railroad Administration but abruptly resigned after being accused of improperly being paid by the federal agency and Madison County at the same time.
White formerly served as chief of staff for U.S. Sen. Cindy Hyde-Smith and the late Sen. Thad Cochran. He was formerly a chief of staff for the state auditor’s office and served as chairman of the state Republican Party from 2008 to 2011. He served as an assistant to former Transportation Commissioner Dick Hall.
Hall on Monday said that media reports about his moonlighting with the county while working for FRA were incorrect, and that he resigned “due to a family emergency.”
Longtime MDOT Director Melinda McGrath announced her resignation in March, under political fire from state lawmakers. Lawmakers, particularly in the Senate, have been critical of MDOT for cost overruns, delays on projects and other issues and proposed a bevy of legislation this session aimed at stripping the agency of money and authority. Lawmakers stripped MDOT of its commercial traffic enforcement division.
McGrath, an engineer who worked for MDOT for more than 30 years, was praised as an administrator and road builder — including as a lead engineer for hundreds of millions of dollars in work after Hurricane Katrina’s destruction in South Mississippi. But she appeared to struggle with the political side of running the state’s massive transportation industry. She famously clashed with now Gov. Tate Reeves, after she said the agency was receiving political pressure to build an unneeded $2-million frontage road connecting Reeves’ gated neighborhood to nearby shopping and dining.
MDOT’s director is supposed to answer directly to a three-member, elected commission, not state lawmakers or other politicians, but the realpolitik is lawmakers are historically keenly interested in, and prone to meddle with, road building and maintenance and the running of MDOT.
Central District Transportation Commissioner Willie Simmons on Monday said the agency as of its deadline more than a week ago has received about five resumes for the director position, all from people in-state. He said no schedule for interviews or picking a replacement has been set, but said that would likely be a discussion at next week’s Transportation Commission meeting.
Whomever the elected commission picks as director is subject to state Senate confirmation in the next legislative session.
Simmons said he doesn’t believe an MDOT director has to be an engineer or have extensive road building experience as long as they have administrative skills to run the agency.
Mississippi is the last transportation department in the nation to elect its transportation commission. In the past there has been much debate over switching to an appointed commission, in an effort to take politics out of road building, but such moves have never gained much momentum.
The hiring of engineer McGrath a decade ago was also aimed at removing politics from an agency that had seen scandal and political battles under her predecessor, former Natchez Mayor Butch Brown.
There were questions about the agency’s purchase and use of helicopters and expensive remodeling of MDOT headquarters — which got the nickname of “Taj Mahal.” There were also questions about taxpayer funded trips to Budapest by MDOT officials. Feuds between the elected commissioners and director resulted in one commission being banished from headquarters to an office in a trailer, and having one of his secretaries fired by the others.
Brown back then called the federal secretary of transportation an “a–hole” at a national meeting, faced questions about a relative profiting from MDOT-related programs and waged political war with legislative officials. He was arrested for passing out drunk at a casino slot machine in Biloxi, and had to take anger management classes.